ITV faces off with BBC over joint streaming service BritBox

Commercial network ITV said to be committing more fully to the subscription service than the publicly funded BBC

ITV and the BBC are in a face-off over their joint streaming service BritBox. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

ITV and the BBC are in a face-off over their joint streaming service BritBox. Photograph: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

 

ITV and the BBC are in a face-off over their joint streaming service BritBox, as the UK broadcasters’ differing priorities threaten their united front against the likes of Netflix.

Negotiations between the country’s two biggest TV groups have grown tense, according to several people with knowledge of the matter, with commercial network ITV committing more fully to the subscription service than the publicly funded BBC.

Only ITV has pledged funding for the project, agreeing to invest £65 million to the end of 2020.

The BBC, meanwhile, appears to be prioritising its proprietary platform, seeking a rule change that would extend programme availability on its iPlayer service to a year after initial broadcast from the current level of 30 days. If successful, BBC content would be available for free via iPlayer for 12 months before moving to paid service BritBox.

One person close to the negotiations said ITV chief executive Carolyn McCall had “played hardball” with BBC director-general Tony Hall, telling him she would oppose the BBC’s request to media watchdog Ofcom “unless you back my project”.

ITV said it would not comment on ongoing negotiations. The BBC said both parties were working well together and were committed to the project.

But one senior BBC executive, while acknowledging the tie-up was “definitely not a forced marriage”, said “whether it will be a successful collaboration can be debated”.

The platform, which is already operating in the US where it has more than half a million subscribers, is crucial to ITV. Advertisers are following audiences online and the broadcaster’s own streaming service ITV Hub has not proved as popular as the iPlayer. The company’s market value has dropped more than a third over the past 12 months to its lowest level in six years.

Three months after Dame Carolyn said ITV was in “the concluding stage of discussions” with the BBC to launch the platform in the UK this year, touting the opportunity given the commercial broadcaster’s 1 per cent share of the country’s £6.3 billion pay-TV market, no further details have been released.

Some senior insiders remain sceptical that BritBox, with only ITV’s £65 million in funding, can make an impact in the era of Netflix, a company expected to spend £11.5 billion on content globally this year alone that has ambitions to become a “champion of British content, talent and storytelling”.

One person close to the BritBox negotiations said there was “no way” the platform “was going to be in the same league as any of the existing streaming services”.

“It is not going to make a material difference in terms of revenues and it is not going to save the public service broadcasters, because they have very low expectations,” the person said.

Channel 4 and Channel 5, the UK’s other PSBs, said they were in “constructive discussions” with ITV on their participation in BritBox.

ITV rejected claims that enthusiasm for the streaming service was low, saying the company remained on track to deliver it in the second half of the year.

“Both ITV and the BBC believe BritBox will become a success,” the company said.

Claire Enders of Enders Analysis believes proposed advertising restrictions on unhealthy foods and pressure on the BBC to waive licence fees for the elderly mean the BBC, along with the country’s other public service broadcasters Channel 4 and Channel 5, are unlikely to pay.

The uncertainty comes at a bad time for ITV, which is facing reputational and regulatory risks over some of its programming. Dame Carolyn last week cancelled The Jeremy Kyle Show, ITV’s most popular daytime programme, after a recent guest died. That death, which followed the confirmed and suspected suicides in the past year of two former contestants in primetime hit Love Island, has prompted Ofcom scrutiny, while MPs have pledged to investigate the broader impact of reality TV.

But certain observers believe scepticism over BritBox may be misplaced.

“I can see it from the standpoint of the media elite in London, who would not watch Coronation Street if they were paid to,” said Ian Whittaker, analyst at Liberum. But there will be a demand for this product among the general population. There are people who do not want Netflix.”– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019